Cattracks by Susan Fleming Holm

These winter storms betray the habits of the neighborhood cats. There they are, the cautious little prints in the new snow on my neighbor’s sidewalk, or following the line of my house under the eaves, or swallowed into my garage through the hole that my Black Lab, Sevgi, dead now these two years, chewed in the door during a summer thunderstorm fourteen years ago.

Many tracks come to and leave from my front porch. Somewhere on my house feline hieroglyphics announce the cat equivalent of “Sucker!” Thus I have found myself sharing cabin fever these past months with Peanut, V leek, Henry Sunshine, Peter Paletwin (P.T.), Yaban, Gray, and Checkers Gibson. And three Applicants on the front porch—Mr. Patch, Picasso, and Paloma (Mama Cat).

Of this pride, P.T. is the self-designated Alpha Cat. In all but the very worst weather he wants out and in with frequency so he can inspect his territory. None of the other indoor cats leaves or enters without letting him have first choice at the door, with a wide berth. Yaban won’t even appear if P.T. is in view or within smell. And although P.T. doesn’t challenge the Applicants, neither is he afraid of them, and he will help himself to their food at any chance. Furthermore, P. T. will charge head-on any of the neighborhood dogs, all of whom, like the indoor cats, make a wide circle around him, whether they are on leash or roaming free.

According to local legend, the Genesis of the Neighborhood Cats occurred in a vacant lot with a dumpster behind a restaurant a couple streets over. Perhaps the abundance of food in this Eden encouraged immigrants, or perhaps only two cats, their appetites sated, turned to other hungers, propagating themselves successfully and quickly. When I moved into the neighborhood I thought the problem (another chapter in the Genesis of the Cats narrated their existence as problem) was fairly easily solved with patience, cat food, and an understanding veterinarian in Kirkwood willing to keep a rolling tab. Alas, the restaurant closed three years ago and at last count the cats are still way ahead of me.

There are moments when I recognize that this situation continues as it does because the logic that drives it is far greater than mine. Genesis is survival after all, and the act pre-dated the book of that title. Perhaps I’m the one who has created a problem. The cats who share my home live a long time, and even though they no longer reproduce, any of the neighborhood birds, rabbits, or squirrels will tell you that the ecological system of my back yard has long been out of balance. My decisions leave tracks over a wide territory.

I thought about this during a recent Friday night snow storm, as I fixed a mug of hot tea while the wind howled outside the house. In the first place, I said to myself, it’s now clear that I’ll never fully stabilize, (whatever that means), the colony of neighborhood cats. Furthermore, and of much greater moment, is the fact that every time I have a cat neutered, or have one of the old ones euthanized, I am filled with guilt. It is an unspeakable betrayal to make life and death decisions for creatures who have come to trust me. I have too much power. I don’t like playing the alpha role. Finally, looking at it from a purely selfish point of view, when I retire and move from Monmouth in another nine years, how can I possibly take ten cats with me?

These thoughts have taken me to the front door where I stand, holding the mug of hot tea, looking out at the storm. I turn the porch light on, and I can see a line of tracks in the new snow, moving unevenly up the front walk and the stone steps to where Mr. Patch sits snarfing cat crunchies from a snow-covered bowl. He holds his right front paw, broken and bent from some long-ago incident of which I am ignorant, off the cold porch floor. He looks up, startled by the light. I notice that his other eye is now also injured, infected and oozing. Seeing only me, he goes back to eating. I hope that by the time he crawls into his straw- and blanket-filled box it won’t be too wet with the new snow. Tomorrow I’ll make another attempt, my third, to take him to the Kirkwood vet.